Darel Rex Finley in 888

Designers Cannot Do Anything Imaginable

2009.12.15   prev     next

CORNELIUS Hunter, the pro-ID author who, IMNSHO, comes closest to fully realizing the true implications of ID, quotes Joe Felsenstein in a recent blog post:

A simple way to state the problem with Cornelius Hunter’s argument is that he is arguing that a Designer could do anything, so a Designer cannot be refuted by any observation. He is happy to have thereby refuted all the people who point out bad design.

But he doesn’t get it that what he has just done is to admit that the hypothesis of a Designer is not science, as it predicts every possible result. If you predict every possible outcome, the ones that are seen and the ones that are not, then you have not predicted anything!

Unless you have some information about the Designer’s intentions, her powers, how frequently she acts, and where, and on which organisms and which phenotypes, you ain’t got nothin’, no scientific hypothesis at all.

Hunter makes some good counterarguments to Felsenstein, but I don’t think he quite puts his finger on the most important flaw in Felsenstein’s above argument, which is this:

Real designers cannot do anything you can loosely imagine they might be able to do. If you hypothesize designers who can do anything imaginable — and maybe even “do the impossible” (whatever that means) — then you don’t have a scientific hypothesis, for the reasons made quite clear by Felsenstein above.

But if you hypothesize designers who can’t do everything imaginable, whose characteristics are at least approximately similar to what we scientifically know actual designers to be like, then you do have a scientific hypothesis. And, in fact, you have the only one that works.

A Real Hypothesis, Not A Strawman

Felsenstein says you “ain’t got nothin’” if you don’t have information about “the Designer’s” intentions, powers, frequency of action, etc. That’s simply wrong. You don’t need information about the designers, you need a hypothesis of what designers might be like, what they might want, etc., and then you need to compare that hypothesis to the available evidence to see how well it works. And, to be reasonably scientific, this hypothesis should be based at least approximately on what we actually know about real designers from our direct experience with them.

In cases where Felsenstein and all other scientists would agree that something was designed, e.g. the Corvette, what do we observe? We see that real designers do not have infinite powers to massively manipulate the entire contents of their world, and rely heavily on the power of mass production to spread their works far and wide. They do not have infinite knowledge — they tinker and experiment to find out what will work. They do not have unlimited resources of time with which to rid their designs of even minor imperfections. They do not care (or at least are not dissuaded from engaging in design) that many copies of their creations will wind up in a trashcan somewhere. And they aren’t particularly bothered if someone, somewhere chooses to authoritatively say of their creations, “This couldn’t have been designed — it sucks too badly.”

Real designers take all of those misfortunate eventualities in stride. They are driven by the desire to design. They’re infected with the bug of creativity. If at least some people, somewhere, really enjoy driving around in a Corvette, then that’s good enough. It has to be.

Solving the Design Problem

Felsenstein is correct that the possibility of designers with unknown powers is bad for scientific hypothesizing. But the fact that it’s bad doesn’t make it go away. The problem of the possibility of designers with unknown powers is, like the problem of self-reference, insolvable, which means that Felsenstein, if he really takes this problem seriously, should throw up his hands at all hypotheses (including Darwin’s), wash his hands of science and walk away — simply because anything we observe could have been designed. So why doesn’t he? Well, probably because he wants to do science.

If you want to do science, the correct way to deal with the design problem is to try to differentiate between things that designers are more likely to do, versus less likely to do, instead of implicitly insisting that designers must be equally likely to produce one effect as to produce any other. And for the scientific, that means studying the effects of known designers.

That Felsenstein can formulate demands on “the Designer” that are obviously extracted from that most unscientific of sources, religion, then eliminate all possibility of design on the basis that those demands lie somewhere between refuted and unrefutable (but which one??) — all while confidently asserting that his position is the scientific one — is a very sad statement indeed about how lowly most scientists today regard the fundamental principles of their own profession, and how much more highly they regard the possibility of mandating a worldview that they find personally pleasing and satisfying.

 

See also:
“How Science Works,” Mechanism pp 31-33
&
Real Design
&
Intelligent Design — The Straight Dope

 

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